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Uncommon Carriers

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Transportation Week is observed annually in May to acknowledge the importance of transportation to our economy. What better time than Transportation Week could there be to recommend reading Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee?

McPhee is one of the best writers of nonfiction ever. He tackles diverse subjects with equal enthusiasm and aplomb and makes them all interesting. He has written about boats, ships and fish, geology, art, and oranges, and allows the reader to discover things about each that we did not know we wanted to know. An enduring image from Oranges is of people in the Caribbean who split oranges and clean floors with them, one half in each hand.

Uncommon Carriers is a hymn to the people of the industries that move goods around the world. McPhee accompanies a truck driver, a ship’s captain, and engineers of a coal train on their long hauls to learn how materials are transported, how the vehicles and equipment work, how people navigate and maneuver, load and unload. It is a surprisingly engaging account, with a delightful dose of humor to boot.

In A Fleet of One, McPhee accompanies Don Ainsworth on a cross country drive carrying a hazardous substance to Oregon. Oregon is the only U. S. state that restricts speed by truck weight. At Cabbage Hill, on the Oregon Trail, they descend 2000 feet in ten miles, traveling most of that distance at a 6 percent grade. Ainsworth manages this going 18 miles per hour, based on his weight, without touching his brakes, thanks to his Jake Brakes (an air compressor-like retarder) and shrewd gear selection. Although escape ramps are available on this steep stretch, most truckers avoid using them because of the grooming fees the state charges.

Ainsworth is fastidious about maintaining his truck, which he says is the world’s most beautiful, a 65-foot chemical tanker with 5 axles and 18 wheels. He washes and polishes it until it shines so clearly that you can part your hair in its perfect mirror-like reflection. But he only washes it in one of three places—Salt Lake City, the LA Basin, or Caldwell, Idaho—because there he can find reverse osmosis or deionized water, which produces the shine. He pays $60 plus $15 tip for a 2-hour wash job.

It is thanks to careful tank washings that he can deliver a load, clean, then take on another, different load in the same region, and head home, never returning with an empty tank. He uses an agent to coordinate his travel.

He carries a variety of substances, including WD-40, surfactant, parts degreaser for F-16s, a "secret ingredient" that goes into Spy Grease, soap used in bricks, weed killers, paint thinners, latex for plywood, dust suppressants. Haulers either carry food or chemicals, but very seldom cross over into the other territory.

Tank washing is hazardous work. If not handled carefully, a technician can lose his life falling in and being overcome with poisonous fumes.

Navigating truck stops, and what takes place there, is a fascinating experience. So is learning about who drives trucks—not who you might have thought. So is learning the lingo of the truck driver.

And this is just the first chapter. McPhee also takes us to ship-handling school at Port Revel in the French Alps, he guides us through UPS Air’s distribution hub at Louisville International Airport, he hauls us up the Illinois River on a towboat pushing a triple string of barges, he takes a canoe up the canal-and-lock waterways traveled by Thoreau, and rides with the engineers of a coal train through the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.

For an entirely new appreciation of what makes this country run, read Uncommon Carriers and marvel at the skill it takes to operate these complicated vehicles. And next time you pass an 18-wheeler on a downslope, be sure to give the guy plenty of space before you cut over.

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